Targeting socioeconomic transformations to achieve global sustainability


Teemu Koskimäki


Ecological Economics

Research summary

Despite all the calls for transformational change, debate continues on the desirability and feasibility of the two main strategies for achieving sustainable development: green growth and post-growth.

I organized a global expert survey targeted at sustainability scholars to find out what future pathways they think high-income (HI), upper-middle-income (UMI), lower-middle-income (LMI), and low-income (LI) countries should follow for local and global sustainability to be achieved. I received responses from 461 scholars, from 66 countries.

A comparison of the responses revealed that sustainability scholars do not support the idea behind green growth for affluent countries, which assumes that progress comes with, and from, economic growth (Pathway B in Figure 1). Instead, an overwhelming majority, over 75 percent, supported the idea behind post-growth: high-income countries should look beyond growth already this decade and focus directly on the wellbeing of people and the environment (Pathway C), or even decrease GDP to reduce environmental impacts (Pathway D). For less affluent countries, the majority of scholars favoured either green growth or post-growth pathways.

Figure 1. A) Pathway choice by group and decade, with the percentages labelled for each pathway. B) Change in preferences between 2030s and 2020s for each pathway, in each context. Pathways: Business-as-usual (A), green growth (B), and post-growth (C & D). [Corresponds to publication Figure 2]

Support for post-growth paths increased over time, while support for green growth declined in all contexts (Figure 1, B). In other words, there is strong agreement that the future of global sustainability is linked to getting beyond the growth-focused understanding of progress and focusing instead directly on the wellbeing of people and nature.

Although sustainability scholars preferred the idea behind post-growth, I found that they are not as familiar with post-growth as they are with green growth (Figure 2). This gap in knowledge and skills can create challenges for achieving global sustainability, which I discuss in the paper.

Figure 2. Self-assessed familiarity with key topics: the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), green growth (GG) theory and post-growth (PG) theory. [Corresponds to publication Figure B4]

60% of participants thought that growth would eventually end in all groups, but only 44% of them thought the end would be intentional in the context of high-income countries. Of those who responded that growth would end in the 2020s or 2030s for high-income countries, 50% thought the end would be intentional. Most scholars preferred low but positive growth for high-income countries during this decade, but great uncertainty surrounded the estimates of desirable future economic growth rates among sustainability scholars.

Overall, most sustainability scholars considered GDP to be a poor indicator of societal well-being, although this varied based on pathway preferance (Figure 3). This finding supports ongoing discussions about the need for more holistic measures of progress, particularly for affluent countries where the costs of increasing consumption-growth outweigh its benefits.

Figure 3. Participant evaluations of GDP as an indicator of societal well-being (A) overall and (B) grouped by pathway preference for high-income countries in the 2030s. Exact percentages labelled, with the number of participants in each category in brackets. [Corresponds to publication Figure B7]

As I discuss in the paper, an earlier survey from 2015 had shown that in the context of high-income countries, support for green growth and post-growth was 50/50 among scholars. Now, according to my global survey, the support is almost 80/20 in favour of going beyond growth. It was also unknown that such a large fraction of sustainability scholars, between 20-40%, prefer post-growth strategies for less affluent countries, suggesting these countries might want to avoid the narrow growth-based Western understanding of progress altogether.

Based on my findings, high-income countries should seek to get beyond growth already during the ongoing decade for global and local sustainability to be achieved. In the paper, I discuss how this would requires societies to address the prevailing growth dependence.

The paper concludes that we need to place for more emphasis on targeted transformational change in research, education, and policymaking, with particular focus on facilitating post-growth approaches in affluent countries. This could help societies find a safe and just way to secure global sustainability, which we need to do quickly and securely, considering all available tools.

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